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The thorny question of minimum charges has cropped up quite a lot recently. I’ve been busy for most of this year on large projects and so have not been able to accommodate any but the smallest jobs alongside. I’m often asked about this by less experienced colleagues and I thought I’d set down my personal ground rules.

I work on the premise of accepting a “base load” of a certain amount of words per week in advance, say 10,000 words, for the sake of argument, but in the knowledge that, at a push, I can accommodate smaller jobs for regular clients on top of that base load. When I quote for longer jobs, I quote a timescale geared to that base load, so it’s up to me to decide what I can squeeze in as well. If I make good progress, I may be able to do twice the base load word count, but I would hate to promise that upfront. Not only do I have a number of regular and, in many cases, direct clients who I’d have to disappoint if I was totally booked up, but I would be putting myself under a huge amount of pressure for weeks in advance and not allowing any leeway for unexpected events!

Let me give you an example: one day last week, I was on target with my base load projects, so ended up accepting three “minimum charge” jobs during the course of the morning. None of them was particularly tricky, but they were all for different clients, in different subject areas and two different languages. The total amount of words was probably no more than 500, but it took me far longer to process than it would have done 500 words for one client as part of a longer text. In fact, most of the morning disappeared and then my electrician turned up unexpectedly during the afternoon, so I ended up struggling to finish my base load quota for the day!

So, a resounding yes, I definitely do charge a minimum fee! Whether you’re working on a bigger project that you have to interrupt, or just accepting a run of small jobs of a couple of hundred words, the fact remains that small jobs are much more fiddly than larger jobs you can get your teeth into. First of all, you’ve got just the same amount of client contact, be it e-mail correspondence or phone calls – in fact, you may well have more, as there’s bound to be the inevitable negotiation for a first-time client about the fact that you have a minimum charge! “Oh but, couldn’t you just do it for £20?” or, “But it’s not much at all!”, or “Oh, but that’s more than we charge the end client” are some responses you might hear. All well and good, but on top of that, you still have the same amount of admin – converting the file in some cases, setting up the file in your CAT tool of choice, finding client memories and suitable glossaries, invoicing, filing, database entries, …. Then there’s the file itself: it may well only be 250 words, but chances are it may be on a topic that you need to research, or involve client-specific terminology you’ll have to track down – or throw up some peculiar grammatical oddity that will take you ages to work out…. The fact that there’s less to go on in terms of context often makes it harder to get a feel for what’s actually needed, unlike in a longer text, where everything tends to be clearer – or at least better explained in context.

As a rule of thumb, I tend to apply a minimum charge which is approximately equivalent to my hourly rate. Not in all cases (some were set historically lower and it’s hard to change after the event), but that seems to be a good starting point, certainly for new clients. Don’t, whatever you do, be tempted to reduce your minimum charge because the text is “only” 150 words (or whatever) – a minimum charge is a minimum charge and means exactly that. By the time you’ve added on all the associated tasks, that’s the lowest you’re prepared to accept for ANY given job. If you set a precedent of agreeing to reduce it here and there, you’ll never be able to enforce it – be warned!

That said, there are certain situations where I don’t enforce a minimum charge:

a)      If a client sends a number of related jobs at the same time (or in quick succession) – in such cases, I would regard them as part and parcel of the same job and charge accordingly.

b)      If a regular (and valued) client sends a very short text that is virtually identical to something in my TM and really will only take me 5 minutes to do – in such rare cases, I may very well waive any charge at all. (On the basis that it will be a lot more effort to do the admin than to translate!) I view this as a means of generating goodwill – in actual fact, the client often comes back and says “Add it to the next invoice” – leaving it up to me whether I do so or not…

c)       Similar, if a regular and valued client asks me to help with a couple of words or a brief sentence, I may do so for nothing – again for goodwill – but there is a fine line between generating goodwill and being taken advantage of! If you notice that a client is overstepping the mark and sending frequent requests of this kind, that’s the time to stop. You really have to know your clients if you’re going to do this – “regular” and “valued” are definitely the key words here. You do not want to be offering your valuable time for free other than as part of a relationship where it generates “added value” for you and for the client.

d)      If a client sends an amendment to a job I’ve already done in the relatively recent past, then I probably wouldn’t apply a minimum charge. If it was some time ago, I’d have to assess it on its merits, but I have a horrible habit of forgetting the project I’ve just finished as soon as I’ve started on the next, so it might not always be easy to get back in that particular groove!

e)      Advertising slogans or marketing copy do not count as either no-charge few-word exceptions or minimum charges! These take an inordinate amount of time to do properly and should be charged on an hourly basis!

Even with minimum charges, you’re sure to find that your income will not be as much as if you were working on a longer text. If nothing else, a minimum charge may serve as a means of putting off a client when you’d really rather not do the job in the first place – although just saying no is definitely the easier option!

With thanks to Mox http://mox.ingenierotraductor.com/ for the very appropriate cartoon!